A taste of Portugal: Marisqueira Mediterranean Bistro in Aspinwall has its ups and downs
Polvo A Marisueira, octopus broiled with Portuguese Blue Cheese.
Bacalhao A Bras, sauteed cod with egg, onion and straw potatoes.
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Claudio Pereira was born and raised in Portugal. As a young man, he moved to Pittsburgh and began working in his father's restaurant, Mallorca on the South Side. It was there that he met his future business partner, Franciso Buxareo, and the two men began discussing the possibility of starting their own restaurant.
They opened Marisqueira Mediterranean Bistro last August, in the space previously occupied by Mio Kitchen and Wine Bar in Aspinwall. The space has been only slightly changed. The walls are a mustard yellow, rather than the oranges and reds of Mio, and niches and shelves display colorful ceramics. Many dishes are served in heavy stoneware, the thick pots keeping braises and fish stews warm.
1 1/2 stars = Good+
1/2 star = Promising
2 stars = Very good
1 1/2 stars = Good+
225 Commercial Ave.
- Hours: Lunch: Monday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. (dinner menu also available). Dinner: Monday-Thursday, 3-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 3-11 p.m.; Sunday, noon-9 p.m. (dinner menu only).
- Summary: An extensive menu of Portuguese fare served in an attractive, formal dining room.
- Recommended dishes: Presunto iberico, Iberian octopus with Portuguese blue cheese; braised short ribs in a port wine reduction; Bacalhao a bras (sauteed cod with egg, onion and straw potatoes); young goat; flan.
- Prices: Appetizers, $8-$17; soup and salad, $5-$8; entrees, $16-$31; sides, $4-$6 desserts, $7.
- Drink: Full bar and wine list, with a moderate emphasis on Portuguese wine.
- Useful information: Wheelchair accessible; credit cards accepted; reservations suggested on weekends; corkage, $15. A dozen whites and reds by the glass, starting at $7. Five sparkling wines by the bottle, three for less than $40; 37 whites by the bottle, 13 available for $35 or less; 41 reds by the bottle, with 27 available for $40 or less.
- Noise level: Medium loud to loud.
The restaurant specializes in Portuguese cooking and wine. The substantial menu lists more than 50 dishes, and on most nights it's supplemented by close to a dozen verbal specials. There are few kitchens that could execute such a range of dishes with consistent attention to quality. So it was no surprise that some dishes were disappointing.
But among bowls of soggy salad greens, under-seasoned broths and overcooked proteins, there were also more than a few wonderful examples of rustic Portuguese cooking. A large plate of thinly sliced cured ham -- called jamon Iberico in Spain, but also made in Portugal, where it is called presunto Iberico -- tasted incredibly fresh, as if it had been sliced to order and allowed to warm up for just a few minutes ($16). The ham was delicate and rich, and not too salty. Sometimes, sourcing a great ingredient and serving it correctly is all that a chef need do.
Broiled octopus with Portuguese blue cheese showcased top quality ingredients as well as precise preparation ($17). The octopus tasted fluffy and sweet against the rich texture and flavor of blue cheese. A generous pooling of olive oil, infused with garlic and chopped herbs, became an incredible dipping sauce for the large, crusty rolls handed out to each diner.
Soups were good, too. A brothy kale and potato soup (a special) was enriched with diced linguica sausage, while the spicy, aromatic coriander soup was garnished with a whole egg, poached in the broth ($5).
Not all the seafood dishes were equally impressive. Shrimp in piri piri sauce was a major disappointment. The shrimp were small and slightly mealy and the sauce was more tangy than spicy and too salty. ($20).
Sliced calamari sauteed with tomato, cilantro and garlic was so under-seasoned that the broth had no flavor, though the calamari itself had been very nicely cooked ($11). Cockles steamed in beer, olive oil and sliced garlic were better, but the broth was nothing remarkable ($11).
A number of seafood preparations were mixed dishes, such as fish stews, fish with shellfish or sauteed shellfish and meat. These types of dishes are particularly difficult to execute well, and unfortunately, the kitchen wasn't quite up to the task. A casserole of sauteed pork with steamed little necks and potatoes was quite bland, and the pork was so overcooked that it was difficult to eat ($18). Fisherman's stew, a pot of monkfish, salmon, mussels and clams with large chunks of potato, also lacked flavor, and none of the seafood was cooked particularly well ($20).
Bacalhao a bras , however, a large platter of sauteed cod with egg, onion and straw potatoes, was delicious and comforting, rather like hash browns mixed with egg and cod, all of it flavored with lots of well-caramelized onions ($25).
The real stars of each meal were the braised meats. Boneless short ribs braised in port wine were tender and incredibly rich, with a wonderful glaze from the port ($23). It was served simply with rice and peas and some sauteed carrot and zucchini slices. The young goat was even better, served like a pot roast, with big wedges of roasted potatoes and a lovely rich, dark sauce that also contained a generous splash of red wine ($27).
Desserts included a good creme brulee and an excellent flan, though the latter was sadly overcooked and curdled on one visit. It was served with a heaping spoonful of dulce de leche, which helped make up for the scrambled egg texture of the custard.
Service needs some serious smoothing out. One evening, as we were being seated, we noticed a piece of food and a napkin left on the floor after the table had been cleared. Every table seemed to get a slightly different list of specials and desserts, and on a busy evening, our table was taken care of by an endlessly shifting array of servers, who each double-checked what the previous server had done. During one dinner, when the restaurant was relatively empty, we could hear a loud argument between two members of the staff who had stepped into the kitchen.
Amazingly, the chaos didn't have much effect on the flow of the meal, but it was disorienting and frustrating, and it shouldn't happen at any restaurant, much less one that aspires to be a fine dining destination.
I expect that the long menu takes a toll on the servers as well as the kitchen. Cutting down on the number of items, and offering printed specials and dessert menus might improve the experience for everyone. Already, there are plenty of tasty reasons to give this restaurant a try, but if Marisqueira offered less, it might wind up impressing more.
First Published January 19, 2012 12:00 am